Permaculture as (art) practice

Kurt Schwitters, Last Birds and Flowers, 1946, Collage on paper laid down on card, 17.1 x 14.2 cms (6 3/4 x 5 5/8 ins), KS13779

While immersing myself in reading about permaculture and the posthuman, I come across a website article on the artist Xin Cheng – Art as permaculture and localist utopia which opens with the following statement:

Xin Cheng’s art is closer to permaculture and an open-handed survivalism than contemporary art culture. She practises sustainable horticulture and numerous crafts, curates salads and collates muesli recipes, photographs sausage-curing wires and portable cooking stations and records different designs for bivouacs and road-side petrol vending stands – all as if outside the greedy purview of contemporary art.

Although “… curates salads …” makes me cringe, the summary of Xin Cheng’s activity, makes me realise the connection between my interest in permaculture and the posthuman with one of my favourite kind of art works, the collage, and its subconscious influence on my practice and thinking. By now you will realise, I hope, that I use these blog posts as a kind of diary in which I explore some strands of thinking that will lead to the presentation next Wednesday. I started teaching on Dada & Surrealism some 30 years ago while living in Belgium and finishing my, what is now an MA, in Art History. The practice of the collage seems to lie at the heart of Dada, amongst others in the work of Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Höch, but also impregnates the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th in a more general way. In other words, it partly seemed to be an art of living, which is best exemplified in the work of Schwitters who developed his own kind of Dada called Merz. He took this word out of the name of a German bank, Finanz- und Kommerzbank, and turned it into a verb – to merz (merzen) was to make a collage, but could also be seen as a way to merge. Schwitters took the materials for his Merz-bilder from the streets – tram tickets and other debris regularly made it into his collages. He would also extend his Merz-bilder into 3D-versions – the Merzbau in his home-town Hannover, another version in Norway and finally his barn in the Lake District. But Schwitters was also a painter. A retrospective on his work, the first to be shown in France at the Centre Pompidou in 1994, made it clear that this seemingly divide between his avant-garde Merz-bilder and classical landscape paintings was actually non-existent – both activities were closely connected. Also working as a poet and performer, Schwitters was out to make a Gesamtkunstwerk. Or as Schwitters commented himself:

I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings; they suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints… It is possible to cry out using bits of old rubbish, and that’s what I did, gluing and nailing them together.

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau Hannover (reconstruction), 1933 and Landscape, Hjertøya near Molde, Norway, 1939

This idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk, for which there does not seem to be an adequate translation into English, but which expresses a simultaneous totality, seems important when reflecting about the sustainability of my practice as a researcher, writer, curator.

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